The Korangal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, is unforgiving and rocky, like its inhabitants. It is a region that resists outsiders.
During its occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviets avoided Korangal. Some historians believe that Alexander the Great likewise shunned it. Today in the Korangal, as one U.S. soldier puts it, "Where the mountain road ends, the Taliban begin."
Restrepo follows the Second Platoon of the 173d Airborne Brigade in Korangal, where U.S. soldiers go farther into the "Valley of Death" than previous outlanders, engaging, on average, in four to five firefights a day for 14 months.
According to this courageous, you-are-there documentary, the platoon took enemy fire almost every day, perhaps the longest exposure to combat the U.S. has engaged in since World War II.
Like flies on a soldier's helmet, codirectors Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington observe the long stretches of boredom punctuated by bursts of bullets and adrenaline, letting the 15 soldiers tell the story in their own words. The result is a sympathetic group portrait of a band of brothers.
Capt. Dan Kearney leads his men into the Korangal - known by reputation as "the deadliest place on Earth" - to root out the Taliban by any means possible.
He tries bullets, bribery, diplomacy. He holds weekly "shuras," or meetings with the elders, some of them with hennaed beards and kohl-rimmed eyes. And some of them who accept food and money by day and by night shoot at their benefactors.
Kearney's men are courageous and articulate but not fearless. "The fear is always there, especially at night," says Sgt. Aron Hijar. When the monkeys howl after dark, Sgt. Brendan O'Byrne mistakes it for Taliban keening.
"We were fish in a barrel," Kearney says after the ambush that takes the life of Juan "Doc" Restrepo, the platoon's much-loved medic, age 20.
Under Kearney's orders, some of the fish swim out of the barrel of the Korangal Outpost and into an escarpment, recently a Taliban firing position. There, while enduring fire between a rock and a hard place, they dig themselves a new outpost and christen it Restrepo after their fallen buddy.
We learn that one of the specialists, son of a hippie mother, wasn't allowed to play with even so much as a water pistol growing up. Another, pumped up after a firefight, says, "Once you've been shot at, you can't come down."
In their just-the-facts approach, the filmmakers neither pass judgment on the platoon's mission nor comment on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. In the filmmakers' eyes, the men came, they saw, they didn't conquer; they do reflect.
"My only hope is that some day I can process it differently," says one soldier after leaving Restrepo. At the end of Junger's and Hetherington's profiles in courage, you want to salute him and say he took the words right out of your mouth.